AUGUSTINE OUR CONTEMPORARY
When my students read Augustine’s Confessions, they’re amazed how an African bishop writing in A.D. 400 seems to understand their own anxieties and hopes, their idolatries and dreams. The self-examination that Augustine undertakes is like a message in a bottle that has floated across oceans and centuries, forcing them to ask Augustine’s question for themselves: What do I really love?
So don’t be fooled by the distance of time and place: Augustine is our contemporary. I’ve sometimes said that Augustine was a Manhattanite 1,500 years before Manhattan existed. A promising young man from the provinces, both he and his family had dreams of him making it to the center of cultural power and influence. He believed his education would be a ticket to the upper class and “the good life.” And like those citizens of Manhattan we see in Sex and the City or Friends or Girls, Augustine also thought sex would satisfy his deepest cravings. It’s almost like Augustine was drafting the script for The Wolf of Wall Street in the streets of ancient Milan.
Despite being a citizen of ancient north Africa, Augustine was well-acquainted with the demons that plague us in late modern America: the pressure to succeed; the driving ambition to climb social and professional ladders; the disorienting thrill of so-called “freedom”; the anxieties that beset our quests for power and pleasure; and the persistent frustration of foisting inordinate expectations upon our accomplishments and possessions. Like us, Augustine knew the exasperation of looking for love in all the wrong places.
That’s why the opening prayer of his Confessions—“You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you”—has turned out to be a perennial insight into the human condition. Augustine’s writings are like a been-there-done-that theological account of the young and the restless. And as our culture begins to resemble the fractured, frantic world of Augustine’s waning Roman empire, I became more and more convinced that Augustine was the perfect patron saint for our secular age. That’s why my latest book project is an attempt to capture Augustine’s wisdom and insight for the 21st century. With the help of a research grant from Calvin’s Alumni Association, I was able to recently follow in Augustine’s footsteps, getting a glimpse into his world in order to better shed light on our own.
A TRAVELOGUE OF THE HEART
In 1957, Jack Kerouac published On the Road, a novel that not only defined a generation but the rest of the 20th century (Mark Sayers has called it “the road trip that changed the world”). Kerouac captured a sense of dynamism, the adventure of wind-in-your-hair freedom and the expansive opportunity that comes with the open road. “The road is life,” he confessed. This tapped into our spiritual hunger for pilgrimage, the very human desire for a quest. But in Kerouac’s novel, we get pilgrimage without arrival. It’s not the road to a destination; the road is the destination. Freedom looks like never going home again, never settling, never arriving.
Augustine understood this human penchant for quests. But he also experienced the disappointments of a life lived in perpetual exile. Never arriving means you’re always leaving. That’s why Augustine’s Confessions are also kind of a “road trip,” but they offer a travelogue of the heart. Augustine structures his analysis of the human condition around the travels and travails of the Prodigal Son, the tale of an ungrateful son who runs off with his premature inheritance having effectively told his father, “I wish you were dead.” And this odd, surprising Father acquiesces: “Here you go,” he says. “I love you.” The son spends everything, wasting these gifts on loose living that calls itself “freedom,” losing himself in the process. He is no longer himself. But at rock bottom, “in a distant country” Luke tells us, the son wakes up and remembers who he is, and Whose he is, and makes his way home to his father’s grace. And there, in the grace of God, he finds what Kerouac and his crew were longing for: He finds himself.
The reason Augustine tells his story is because he thinks it is simply an example of the human story. We are all prodigals. And he wants us to ask ourselves a question: “What if I went home?” But what’s interesting is that it also traces his own geographical excursions from Africa to Italy, from the fringes of the empire to its heart. And it’s precisely when Augustine is as far away from home as he’s ever been, in Milan, that the still small voice of God reaches him and sets him on a path back home—to his heavenly Father, but also back to Africa, where he will serve God for the rest of his life.
The grant from the alumni association allowed me to retrace some of Augustine’s journey. In Ostia, the ancient Mediterranean port where Augustine arrived from Africa—and would later bury his mother, Monica—I walked the stones Augustine would have trod past the ancient pagan temples and the busy marketplace that blended religion and commerce. In Rome I inhabited the ruins of the empire where Augustine started to make his ways into the halls of power. In Milan I saw the baptismal font where Ambrose baptized Augustine—a newcomer to the city who would go on to change the shape of the western world.
LESSONS LEARNED ON THE ROAD
The wager of this research was that I’d find something on the road with Augustine that I could never find in his books. This proved to be true. There’s something visceral about walking those worn stones of Ostia, seeing the mix of paganism and politics in Rome, feeling the light on the Mediterranean, that overcomes the distance between not only the fourth century and the 21st century but also the gap between the printed page and your own imagination. Augustine became less abstract, and more human. There were surprises along the way.
It finally struck me, for example, how much Augustine must have constantly felt like an outsider wherever he went. Indeed, the experience probably started at home. The child of an African mother and a father who was a Roman official, Augustine was bicultural (and quite likely biracial): He lived in two worlds from the time he was born. When he ventured to Rome, he would arrive as an outsider. And even when he returned to Africa, as a product of the Roman education system, he would be an outsider again. It’s why, as Justo González suggests in his provocative book, The Mestizo Augustine, the young African would later come up with the concept of the Christian living in the tension between two cities—the City of God and the city of the earth.
It’s precisely when Augustine is as far away from home as he’s ever been, in Milan, that the still small voice of God reaches him and sets him on a path back home. James K. A. Smith
I also came to a new appreciation for the difference Bishop Ambrose made in his life. When Augustine arrived in Milan, he still thought sophisticated, learned people couldn’t believe in the “fables” of Christianity. But then he heard Ambrose preach—erudite, empathetic, unapologetic—and something in Ambrose’s witness helped Augustine imagine himself coming home to God. It made me think of pastor Tim Keller in Manhattan, or even our own Alvin Plantinga (on whom Keller depends), not so much “defending” the faith as showing how it could be believable. We still need Ambroses today.
Finally, by journeying in a world that not only influenced Augustine but was then influenced by him across subsequent centuries, I came to a new appreciation for Monica, his mother, the patron saint of wayward children. Across the region, in almost every city and town, you will run into images of Monica, tearful Monica, praying for her prodigal son’s return to his heavenly Father, to the homeland of his heart. You can feel the hopes and dreams of mothers and grandmothers across the centuries, worried about children who have strayed from the faith, praying on their behalf, wondering if they’ll ever come back to God. It’s like Monica whispers to them, “Keep praying. My son was lost but now is found. Yours will be too.” God plays a long game with us, and Monica is a testament to enduring hope.
BRINGING AUGUSTINE HOME TODAY
Being on the road with Augustine turned into its own pilgrimage of sorts. I not only could better picture the world that shaped Augustine, I could also see how he shaped the world to follow. And perhaps even more importantly, the journey helped me to realize that some things never change.
Milan today is the same as it was in Augustine’s day: the city where you go to “make it.” A worldwide center of fashion and design, and the engine of the Italian economy, Milan is like a European Manhattan and attracts all the same hungry, ambitious souls who, more often than not, never find what they’re looking for (U2 has written the soundtrack for such quests). And so perhaps Augustine’s travelogue of the heart is more germane than ever. Given that we’ve spent generations looking for love in all the wrong places, and have experienced the pain and disappointment that results from idolizing wealth, power and sex, perhaps our culture is finally ready to consider Augustine’s radical solution: Our rest lies not in acquiring, but in being found.
We can never reach the end of God’s grace, that the Father is always waiting for us at the end of the road...James K. A. Smith
Augustine not only helps us find home, he also helps us be brutally honest about the Christian’s ongoing penchant to run away. “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it” as the hymn writer put it (captured with just the right melancholy tone in Sufjan Stevens’ rendition). Even when we are in Christ, the pull and tug of the mythical “open road” can lull us into thinking the grass is greener elsewhere, that freedom is the absence of obligation, that the goods of creation could be a substitute for the Creator. But Augustine’s honesty about his own continued struggles with ambition and vanity are oddly encouraging. They remind us that we can never reach the end of God’s grace, that the Father is always waiting for us at the end of the road, ready to forgive and throw a feast. His grace is the fetter that sets us free.
James K. A. Smith is a philosophy professor at Calvin College.
READ MORE BY JAMES K. A. SMITH
On the Road with Augustine (Brazos Press, forthcoming in 2019).
An invitation to a spiritual adventure with Augustine, an ancient guide for contemporary life.
You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Brazos Press, 2016).
This award-winning book reframes discipleship as a matter of the heart, beginning with Jesus’ challenging question: “What do you want?”
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